Layoffs loom at federal public defender office

Layoffs loom at federal public defender office

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The federal public defenders office in Hawaii could lose about a third of its staff to layoffs because of sequestration and other federal cuts. Supervising attorney Peter Wolff plans to act soon.

"If I wait until 2014 it's worse than if I try to start doing something now," he said.

Under his present plan two lawyers will probably be let go.

"They're going to have to do something else here or maybe move back to the mainland," he said. "I have at least one person who's decided she's going to have to move back to the mainland."

Despite initiating 20 furlough days per employee and other belt tightening measures, the office will end the present fiscal year with eight percent less money than its 2013 approved budget.

Next year's projection is worse, down $595,000 from this year's dollars.

"The work has to go on one way or the other," Wolff said.

Layoffs would cut the staff from seven attorneys to five. Cases will be shuffled.

"Depending on what stage the case is in we could handle maybe most of them. But in the future, going forward with five lawyers instead of seven, we won't be able to handle the same number," Wolff said.

He said his office may have to turn down some cases and limit travel to investigate neighbor island cases. He may be forced to eliminate pay for expert witnesses and interpreters for defendants.

"If our group can't represent them then they end up having to be represented by members of the CJ panel, private lawyers who are appointed by the court to handle what we for one reason or another can't handle," he said.

But private attorneys cost more. Wolff said it's possible the judiciary will have to spend even more money to represent defendants who can't afford a lawyer, canceling cost savings made by layoffs.

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